Association urges government to reconsider “off the rails” Grade 3 assessment program
The province’s Student Learning Assessment (SLA) program is “a well-intended initiative that has gone off the rails,” says Mark Ramsankar, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
As students stream back to school this fall, government officials will continue to roll out the mandatory pilot of the SLA program that will involve approximately 2,400 Grade 3 teachers and their 50,000 students.
In the last week of June, Ramsankar raised the Association’s concerns with Education Minister David Eggen concerning the future of the current SLA initiative. Their phone call marked the culmination of a series of conversations between the Association and government officials over the closing months of the school year.
While these exchanges contributed to some revisions to the program, such as extending the time frame for administering the program and granting teachers prior access to the questions and tasks, the changes fall far short of addressing teachers’ concerns, Ramsankar says.
“Despite the very sympathetic ear of the minister during our conversations, the fundamental issue remains unresolved — teachers are not being given the option to exercise their professional judgment about what is in the best interests of their students,” Ramsankar said.
Speaking to teachers at the Association’s annual Summer Conference in Banff, Eggen indicated his deep concern with the province’s student assessment practices and the impact that standardized testing generally has had on instruction. Eggen recalled that, as a social studies and English teacher, he disliked having to “teach to the test,” but felt compelled to do so anyway. When asked about the decision to proceed with SLAs, Eggen emphasized that he inherited a program and infrastructure that were already in place. He said that, at least at this point in his term and with the test scheduled to proceed in a matter of weeks, he is not in a position to cancel the SLA administration.
“I have to work with the clay I have,” he said. “I have to put my shoulder to the boulder where it is.”
Eggen assured teachers that this year’s SLA administration is truly a pilot and that the initiative and the entire testing program will be reviewed. He particularly stressed that he “trusted in experts” and that teachers are the experts he wants to hear from.
“The PATs are going the way of the dodo bird and we need some way by which to build student learning assessment, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the way it is now,” he said, adding that he is “wide open to making more significant changes as we move along, including a complete overhaul during the next school year.”
In his opening address to Summer Conference delegates, Ramsankar reviewed the concerns of the profession and stressed that the Association remains committed to the foundational principles of the SLAs and has indeed advocated for research-informed alternatives.
Invoking basketball coach John Wooden, Ramsankar invited the ministry to consider the question, “If we don’t have time to do it right, when will we have time to do it over?”
Ramsankar said he’s continuing to encourage the minister to encourage his officials “to set aside their focus on data analytics and the culture of provincial achievement testing and instead to work with the profession to focus on developing meaningful supports that address the growing diversity and complexity of Alberta classrooms.”
He added that the Association is continuing to call for reconsideration of the SLA initiative by calling on the minister to give teachers the option to participate in the pilot and to reconsider the current implementation model. ❚
The Association’s concerns regarding the SLA program include the following:
- The considerable “mission creep” of the program that has seen a substantive shift away from the initial core purposes of the program as a formative assessment initiative. This shift includes the reliance on a digital platform for the SLAs, the marginalization of teachers’ professional judgment in determining the appropriateness of administering and interpreting the SLAs, the significant implications for teachers’ workload and lack of professional development support, the ill-defined role of the SLAs in any public assurance model, the problematic design of the parent report and implications for reporting student progress.
- The use of highly questionable data analytic tools that ascribe high levels of validity and reliability in terms of determining whether or not students are meeting the outcomes of the programs of study.
- The lack of opportunity for input on substantial issues. In this regard, ministry communications, including those from the deputy minister regarding the SLA program, continue to refer to “partners” and “stakeholders” when in fact the Association has made it clear it is not a partner at the table.
- The continued inability of ministry officials to follow through on the foundational principles that established the original SLA program. The current SLA implementation model being promoted by ministry staff focuses largely on the development and delivery of digital multiple-choice questions focused on generating downstream psychometric data for analysis by ministry officials.
Instead, the Association supports the Alberta Assessment Consortium’s vision of a robust formative assessment program outlined in a public assurance model project based on performance assessments that support the professional learning of teachers to enhance student learning.
To help continue Association efforts on the SLA initiative, Grade 3 teachers are invited to participate in a research study that will assess the impact on teachers’ workload during the upcoming fall administration. For further information on this study, please contact J-C Couture at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted in late July, Alberta Education’s Summer 2015 Update provides information on the fall 2015 pilot administration of the Grade 3 SLAs. The update is available at https://education.alberta.ca/department/ipr/slas/.